Wednesday, October 4, 2017

The Disco Biscuits Haymaker Music Festival 10/5/02

   Over the course of 2002 I fell in love with the Disco Biscuits and chased their music up and down the eastern seaboard. I had a great crew of friends to adventure with including Ryan, Jen, Michael and Corey (what the Deal). The excitement from each show begat the next adventure. Set against the backdrop of the DC Sniper's active period and territory, we ventured down south for a performance that has gone down in Disco Biscuits history. While 10/04/02 stands out as a phenomenal show, one of the best of the year, 10/05/02 is one of the greatest performances (if not the greatest) the Biscuits ever wrestled from the spheres. The already phenomenal audience recording by John Maddigan got a Rich Steele remaster for the 15th anniversary and is an absolute joy to listen to. Listen here! I sat down with the tape approaching the fifteenth anniversary and was just as floored as that faithful night by every note of this show.

             Set 1
The set start times for the weekend were 2:00AM for Friday night and 2:30AM for Saturday. Perfect really for the thing the Biscuits do. Well after Friday night, there was complaints from the community about the whole raging band and light show till sunrise thing. The Saturday sets were moved to a more community friendly midnight and shortened so the band ended up with slightly less than 3 hours. We were all bummed at the time but the time constraint is one of the main factors in why this show ended up being so special. No time to meander. All business. On the way to the wilderness stage, local law enforcement and their German Shepherds formed a gauntlet of paranoia that added another element to the energy that night. To my knowledge they were just there to let their presence be known and no one was hassled.

The sound is marvelous as the band launches into the opening composition of Hot Air Balloon. Magner’s sweeping synth part adds just the right amount of ethereal space around a warm and tight Brownstein bassline. Each musician is crystal clear in the mix. Whoever was doing the sound that night nailed the mix. The audience recording is perfection as well.

They play with such taste and heart right from the jump. Note the transition at 2:45 for chill-inducing perfection. Barber’s singing is earnest, restrained and completely honest.

“just give me one more try to chase down my dreams before I am done.”

Is there a more perfect line to associate with the ethos of this band? What it feels like to follow them? Magner’s piano playing is absolutely masterful throughout the verses. Sammy picks up the pace perfectly to get things moving for the ‘In a hot air balloon’ section. Barber and Brownstein interweave some melodic lines that launch us into the jam around 6:30. So tasteful.

The first jam theme of the night sets the tone: they arrive at something that seems completely developed without any effort. It just flows from them. Magner’s synth line defines this first jam and gives the structure for more contrapuntal interplay from Barber and Brownstein. Barber plays another fully conceived, gorgeous guitar line at 9:55 that creates inspiration for movement the rest of the band follow along with.  The rising pattern Brownstein develops during the preceding jam is ready made support for this. Magner starts adding a piano voice (while maintaining the synth line!) that foreshadows the direction the jam will head in.

This piano part gradually breaks the rest of the band out of that second major theme of the jam and really gets the transitional ball rolling. At 13:11 Barber, out of nowhere once again pulls the most incredible melody from the heart of the universe. Here to me is proof of musicians as a conduit for the music. Somehow the stars aligned and the hearts and intentions of the band were true enough that the signal of the universe is broadcast loud and clear through these mortals.  That we have at least three distinct, completely improvised, perfectly developed classical compositions take shape within the first jam of a show is……the reason we're here.

Barber kicks on a dirty effect and the melodic perfection dissolves like a spider web in a fire. We head down a darker road. Still no less refined, balanced or directed though, as the rest of the gang follow his lead into Astronaut.

This is some meat right here folks. Magner’s soaring synth during the verse once again gives us a sweet moment before the darkness of the chorus. Themes of light and dark always catch my ears and this Astronaut gives the impression we’re in a hyper-sonic space ship, chasing the line of the setting sun around the earth. Now we’re in the night, now it’s day time.

The instrumental bridge is perfectly executed. You can actually default to that summation on any composition from the night. They hit every composed part out of the park. Don’t dismiss this fact though, it’s critical aspect as to why this night is so special. Incredible jams and flawless execution of composition is what makes this show stand head and shoulders above so many others.

“Suspended in the air, don’t you feel better?”

Can you feel that? It’s tangible as they race back into the compositional launching off point for the next jam. Sammy drops into a four on the floor beat at 5:45 that shows great promise for face melting. Bit by bit the energy coming from each instrumentalist gets dark. Dark and tight. Directed. Another critically important factor as to why 10/5/02 is so special is how every jam has absolute direction. Nothing seems aimless or accidental. I think if you played this music for an 18th century classical composer they’d assume it was all composed.

Magner triggers something off at 8:30 that sounds like some vast mechanical beast coming to life. The jam gets even darker. More menacing. Barber starts throwing out a distorted riff on the turn-around and Sammy cues some effortlessly tasteful e-drums. Brownstein’s bass tone is heavily processed. This jam is over by 10:00 but it’s a definitive moment of the song and of the night in my opinion. Sammy breaks the jam down and the monster that arises a bit before 11:00 is enough to terrify any medieval villagers that may have wandered out of the Spotsylvania County forest. Another Sammy breakdown at 13:00 functions to build the energy and tempo up another level. He’s a critical element in this jam. They all are really and truly but I don’t want his efforts to go unrecognized.

Barber and Brownstein slowly start injecting the astronaut theme back into the jam but Sammy is not ready to give up. His steady rock drumming is as powerful and potent as any drummer in the history of rock music at this moment. Absolute Barber touchdown pass on the astronaut reentry.

I have to pause here. This two-song segment is absolute perfection. Better than perfection. Transcendent.

Bernstein and Chasnoff is a welcome downshift in intensity. No dip in quality is evident though. It's all money right from the first instrumental segment. Magner laces some hot fire over a super tight band. An upbeat and funky theme is established around 3:00. I’m going to go ahead and be a cliched biscuits fan and say it: blissco. I ain’t lying though! Bouncy bass, lovely major key jamming with a tasteful electric piano tone from Magner and a clean tone from Barber. Magner’s shift over to what I’d call the ‘Story of the World’ synth tone starts steering the band in a new direction.  At 8:30 some structure remains but we reach a minimal transitional moment with Brownstein steering towards a darker space. Barber and Magner begin integrating riffs that subtly build the tension of the jam. A key change just before 11:00 while still holding onto the late phase B and C pattern. The tension is developed even further. With a minute left it’s still unclear where they’re headed next. Effortless peak>Aceetobee.

Great swagger on this drop as they confidently shuffle into AC2B.

“One day your all locked up the next day your free”

Commentary? On the challenges of the artist? Tonight they’re free. Last night too. Another welcomed dip in intensity with the jazzy composition of this tune. Uh oh. The drop into the jam just shy of 3:00 is massive, and pregnant with possibility. No rest for the tension-wracked. Barber plays the lead then charges into yet another fully developed from the drop segment of improvisation. This jam segment peaks with absolute fire at 7:00. It’s time we address Barber. When he’s on. It’s everything. On this night, ‘On’ is the understatement of the century. He can truly do no wrong. Lets face it, it’s a virtuoso performance from every single band member (and hundreds of fans as well. We can’t forget their part in all of this) but you can’t help but be floored by Mr. Jon Gutwillig. Especially on 10/5/02.

A new jam quickly rises from the ashes, forming around a tight Magner synth line. Sammy deftly trounces us with his kick just before 11:00 for a couple bars, leaving us wanting more. Your standard unimaginative biscuits critique from perhaps a fan of a different jam band is “untz untz untz”, indicating a repetitive and unimaginative dance beat. On a night like tonight, Sammy’s drumming is so varied and tasteful, you’d be hard pressed to see him settle in a four and the floor (untzy)pattern for any amount of time. 

Soaring synth and melodic bass around 12:40 get momentum going towards somewhere else. Sammy drops it out around 14:00 and Magner finds a lovely space for some atmospheric scene painting before they all re-form and start building towards the Aceetobee peak. They hit it with fiery restraint. While they fully play through the theme, they aren’t done peaking this one at all. They stretch out in the chord progression and get even more sparks of energy spitting off the machinery. Barber plays with the line, plays all around the line then gives it to us straight but not narrow. The resolution of AC2B gives my body a tangible release as I’m listening at my work desk.

            Set 2
 A set break but damn is it a quick one! The band comes back on stage to Barber’s comment “We didn’t cut anything out though, we just did it really fast. Like a movie on fast forward” and a member of the audience shouts “Astronaut again!” which I don’t entirely disagree with. Another shouted “Robots!” To which the band complies.
The opening section Save The Robots is a pretty complicated piece of music. It’s very intricate and not always easy to pull off. They execute it perfectly to start set 2. It has the potency of Mindless Dribble or 7-11 to instantly electrify the audience to start a set. It’s a clear gauntlet thrown to the audience to let them know this is going to be some serious business. They are patient and masterful throughout all of the written music and seem supremely comfortable and commanding entering the jam. At around 6:30 Barber and Magner start putting together a nice conversational riff. Brownstein starts expanded his element of the theme as Barber throws some jazzy chords that quickly take on more of a rock tone. At 8:45 the momentum and intensity start picking up which brings us back to the ‘save the robots’ segment.

“Antennae haircut
Is really nothing
It frees your hands
For the panic button.

Enslave the robots
Like us in tribes
Build your igloo
In summer time.”

That is some wonderfully weird and biscuitsy material right there. It’s always been a very compelling lyric to me and a great example of their unique lyrical approach. John Perry Barlow for the digital era. Things get noticeably darker as we enter the slingshot section of Robots. This piece of music builds up a dark dissonant tension that releases oh so satisfyingly with the Go!. I picture a slingshot at first but also picture the pinball launch mechanism.

“They all make me daydream
Trade my peace for..
Day old armies save me
Take my piece and..
Go! Go! Go! Go!”

The Disco Biscuits did a series of fully improvised sets to portions of movies earlier in their career. Their improvised set to Akira on 12/31/99 was the most perfect choice in my opinion. When I hear a biscuits jam like the one that develops out of this Robots slingshot, I can’t help but imagine some sort of futuristic anime chase through the neon lit streets of some sort of Tokyo-like megacity.

At the start of the final Robots peak, I summarized this version as solid but not particularly sparkly. As they really set to the work of peaking the song, I completely changed my mind. All the potential energy not immediately visible previously, manifests in this explosive peak. That Robots was sick. Only standalone tune of the night. To confirm my impression, someone from the audience yells “That was Sick!”.

The opening of the classical style prelude of The Very Moon is played so achingly beautifully, I find myself tearing up a little with goosebumps shooting all over 15 years later listening on my headphones. Magner really sets the mood beautifully, first with the heavenly choir synth then gorgeous and tasteful electric piano. It’s a perfect nest for Barber to nurture one of the loveliest classical-for-electric-guitar melodies ever written. The Very Moon is one of the Disco Biscuits absolute finest pieces of music. This may well be one of the definitive readings of it. I must turn it up a bit and simply take it in.

Through with the songs structural elements, the music drifts freely into a warm, articulate expansion on the theme. The four-way interaction happening starting around 7:30 is a breathtaking example of completely open group-think. Instead of dwelling on the perfection they’d just created, they use this moment of open connection and immediately begin taking things somewhere else. Brownstein kicks on an effect and starts developing a catchy bass theme that at first draws in Sammy. As Brownstein more fully commits to it, the murmuration of birds Barber's part had become is drawn down to the power lines and bare branches of this theme. Sammy drops the tempo down to a slow 4 on the floor groove that creates an excellent space for all to improvise.

Musical magic starts at 12:45. Another time when they’re locked in, rather than sticking with a perfect theme, they launch into space and find another way to go. Movement and direction define the playing here. The frailty of the improvisational space makes the key change around 14:00 so powerful. This f$%king groove (15:00) is incredible. Desk dancing so hard right now. The contrast between this musical moment and how this piece started is unbelievable. Here they lock in and stay put for a moment. Thank god. Powerful, powerful playing. This is the kind of playing (17:00) that I don’t hear anywhere else in the jam scene. Yes Magner, you folks are the punk band of the jam world.

Just when it seems like they couldn’t go any harder they start peaking the jam. That jam that felt like the most intense peak ever? Nah, that was just the baseline. At the slightest referencing of the riff from Barber, The band turns on a dime and drops Helicopters.

“Breathe free, fly high”

Understatement of the century. I had to learn Helicopters on bass recently and it gives me a newfound appreciation for this song. It’s the most complicated simple playing I’ve ever taken on. I honestly never got that close to nailing it. Enough to get by but man it's some tricky playing. Ripping through the composition at 200 mph, a dirty e-drum anchored jam quickly develops and we’re back on the animated-future-city-motorcycle-chase. The balance of moving towards developing new themes and committing fully to the existing theme developed is such a crucial element in why this performance is so incredible. They seem to do so effortlessly, with neither element suffering.

Intensity and momentum once again and we are clearly heading somewhere else. But where? No signs yet with less than a minute left on tape. Hints and whispers enter the musical conversation. Barber changes key and Brownstein follows suit. The triumphant return of The Very Moon theme has me throwing an invisible hat in the air as they calmly steer into the Very Moon funk. They don’t linger long before starting to improvise. It almost seems as if improvising is compulsive on 10/5/02. Like they can’t help but create. I'm not complaining. I love the space they find around 4:30. The sustained bass from Brownie. It gives a lovely breath-catching opportunity for all before a savage drop into Shem-Rah Boo.

The actual song part again offers us a brief respite from intensity while keeping it super tight and interesting. At 4:50 we hit another one of those perfectly hatched improvisational themes that’s the hallmark of this show. This is one of my favorites. The part Magner plays to lead it is so infectious. Brownstein and Barber do a wonderful job supporting and embellishing it. Sammy always knows how to steer the bus. He’s the Neil Cassady of the organization. By 6:45 we are fully ‘in’ this theme. All 4 parts are intricate, have little pieces we can take off the shelf and examine, and drives the larger unit. There’s a little moment of shakiness at about 8:20 that is so endearing in this performance. Its maybe the only time all weekend they stutter or lose a step.  Sure enough they all double down their efforts and rage it even harder. More powerfully and with total command of their instruments. This is the true beauty of improvisational music on display. At 10:30 hid ya kids, hide ya wife, this peak is face-melting everybody. After the peak they have infinite momentum and latch on to the theme one more time but use it as a segue device to return to the completion of Helicopters.

The tension and release of that jam and the return of this piece is monumental. So much energy built and released. I wish there was some sort of gauge to measure something like that. Like study the pupil dilation patterns of the audience or something. Hoots, hollers, a request for Run like Hell, then a request for Basis.

They play Kitchen Mitts instead. I unabashedly love Kitchen Mitts. A Barber ballad, a real and honest to goodness love song from a band that doesn’t do love songs. I suspect much of the reason I love this song is its placement and performance on this particular night. Cementing it deep in my soul for all eternity.

“So sweet Georgia,
Why must I try?
When you like to rob and steal.
and all these people tell me to go find someone else,
when you never cut me a good deal.

So might I have to mention that we should blow them off ?
18 wheels and air ride .
Miles of paranoia, lunatics and jail,
And still we're having a good time.”

What could be more perfect after all that? After all those nights with this band leading up to this night?  They play a stunning and poignant version of this song. Even before they reach the jam, an eerie tension colors the playing during the ‘just like mine’ section. There’s a mournful yet driving quality to the instrumental build towards the ‘na na’ section. The dark haunting beauty that exemplifies the feeling of bisco. They peak nicely into the na’s and I think anyone would’ve walked away after this Kitchen Mitts glowing and telling stories of this night for the rest of their lives. This is the moment that this performance moves beyond legendary to become mythical. Barber starts a spooky arpeggio that Brownstein finds a unique counter point to. Magner has their backs with some warm synth sweeps.

Barber starts chugging a little bit but Sammy (channeling Ron Tutt now) is holding back. Playing with tasteful restraint. Subtle kick placement. A synth sweep ends at 1:40 just as Barber plays a choice lick. It’s a perfect moment. Until Sammy drops the Kick at 2:20. Then we see what perfection really is. The mood Magner sets is so special, so comforting. It flavors the jam to its core. Barber starts leading the groove in an upward gyre.

Now it suddenly becomes clear. The fog lifts and we can see all the mountains around us in morning-sun-soaked splendor. They’re going to play Run Like Hell. THEY’RE GOING TO PLAY RUN LIKE HELL!!!!! Not too quickly though boys. We all know where this is going but let’s just savor it for a minute ok? Our night will soon be done but I don’t want to let go. They comply and we all get to dance and high five and bang our heads in the car for just a little bit longer. Pure triumphant touchdown Barber, unrelenting drive from Brownstein. It’s dirty, its spitting sparks like a runaway train. It’s everything. With all their power, they actually manage to do a big energy release at the end of the first chorus. Good. I need to breathe. Being able to downshift like that without losing steam is pretty incredible. Back into high gear verse 2. Another release as we enter some improv.

More subtle perfection at 10:10. Every note of this show demands your attention again and again. I don’t want to make this a Barton Hall 5/8/77 comparison but its goddamn Barton Hall 5/8/77. Or Veneta 8/27/72 or whatever is THE Dead show for you. Directed and effortless ensemble jamming around 11:50 like this is the beginning of the show and not the end. Barber and Brownie start pushing and pulling on a piece of the jam that quickly catches the full band’s attention  and starts to alter the progress in a new direction. Expert Sammy drop at 14:15 that shifts the jam into higher gear. Barber hints at a theme, Brownstein joins him, while Magner holds down a rhythmic synth line that locks in with Sammy. Peak Peak Peak. One more level up, till we can’t take it, then wooooosh drop back into the composition. Spine rattling bass from Brownstein to bid us goodnight. 

In the writing of this piece I asked dear friends and fellow lovers of Bisco Jay and Michael to contribute there thoughts. Its interesting to see the themes we pick up on independently without discussing. First Jay Cowit:  

The first set of Haymaker Night 2 is a pinnacle of improvisation, performed by a band equally comfortable in their own skin, as they were willing to jump out of it.

The conglomeration of 4 unrelated songs (both in style, content, and form) into such a cohesive ladder of sound and style is utterly remarkable, as tight as any Weather Report or Zappa show, while retaining the fluid experimentation of Miles Davis and Robert Fripp. The commitment to gestalt style jamming, effectively what the Disco Biscuits entire improvisation style is based around, was never more perfectly executed than this show. There are never solos, or wasted periods of noodling or spacing out. Each segment, calm or furious, retains an assassin's poise and timing, never showing you its hand while remaining so humanely familiar, and deadly. It is utter discipline and patience, manifesting in a tapestry of divine psychedelia, twisting the otherwise opposite polar values into a helix of force. The slyness with which the band eases from upbeat and soulful but obsessively tight funk, to the darkest of nightmare-scapes is unparalleled. It is schizophrenic while disturbingly sane.

It always amazes me how little actual techno music is played during this set, yet everything sounds hauntingly machine-like...the lack of errors and ease at which flaws are turned into masterpieces is sublime and unrivaled by any set of improvisation music I've ever heard. It's a 3D printing of a perfect set, but it's played on the spot...using 4 songs that have nothing to do with each other. By the end...the 4 songs are a unified death squad of killers marching across the field, plowing over soul and soil alike. 4 Horseman riding
My loyal partner in crime for Biscuits shows Michael Ogushwitz also had this to say and I think it wraps this all up perfectly: 

I remember Hearing about haymaker during one of the other shows of spring / summer 2002 and we all said "Spotsylvania? HELL NO!!"
fast forward to a week later and we're on our way to Haymaker.

Specifically the part that stands out was Astronaut.   All day I remember somebody singing the chorus of astronaut (rather annoyingly, I might add)... Up until that day, Astronaut was not a song that was on my radar (no pun intended) but that changed that night... It stands out in my memory as something magical... something that I had never experienced musically...   I will probably never be able to explain it but it was like heroin... and I chased that dragon through the remainder of my time seeing tDB.   Never was the thrill of 'bisco' as potent as that night, in that field, in the middle of Virginia, where we all said we weren't going to be.


  1. I really enjoyed reading this and would give anything to have been there. Thank you!

    1. Thanks for the kind words John! It was dumb luck really that anyone was there lol. Kind of random and out of the way. Who knew?

  2. Great read. As someone who was ten years old at the time i will never understand fully what it felt like to experience this magical night live. However, i can live vicariously through a beautifully remastered recording and this review. Happy Biscoing! Cheers!

    1. At the time it just seemed like a really good show. I think its the filter of history that makes anything larger than life. Also, I was 17 when "the 99" was going down so I can identify with you on missing out on a key time. Good thing the biscuits are playing as good as any time in their history these days! Thanks form commenting

  3. Really great review. The details took me there. I like the map, and flyers.

    1. Glad you enjoyed it! I knew I hung on to all that stuff for a reason haha